Jumping ahead at BAE

Materials World magazine
,
1 Mar 2010

Show jumper by night and materials engineer by day, Danielle Burrows straddles both areas comfortably. The engineer at BAE Systems’ site in Blackburn, UK, chats to Rupal Mehta about how her unflappable attitude towards new challenges and pressures has helped her settle into her job with no previous materials background.

Being a self-confessed ‘geek’ who is eager to learn new things, with a sociable and positive outlook, seems to work well for Danielle Burrows. On meeting her at a technical conference on carbon fibre recycling last year, attended by specialist academics and industry stalwarts, it became clear that it is not always about what, or whom, you know, but about admitting what you do not know and asking the right questions.

On probing her further at the event, I discovered that this Materials Engineer in Composites and Non-Metallics at BAE Systems’ site in Blackburn, UK, has been in the business for three years. She assumed the role at this international company for advanced defence, security and aerospace systems with no related vocational or academic qualifications. Her previous positions, on completing her ‘A’ levels in Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics at age 18, involved working as a Medical Laboratory Assistant, and as an Office Manager for Andrew Bowen Ltd, specialists in equestrian surfaces in Greenhalgh, UK.

Burrows recalls, ‘When I was at school, I wanted to be a vet but I didn’t get the ‘A’ level results to do it. With a science background, it made sense to get a science-based job. I went to work at Royal Preston Hospital as a Medical Laboratory Assistant. I got used to the money, and thought if I can get a job that offers training, that would be better’.

Materials science and engineering was not on the horizon at that stage. ‘I did not know anything about it or what jobs were available,’ she says. ‘The job at BAE seemed interesting as it was science-related. I researched on the Internet the night before the interview to understand what a prepreg is all about! Now I really enjoy the field.’

That open-minded approach has enabled Burrows to complete a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Mechanical Engineering alongside her work, and, just last month, she moved onto a new role at BAE as Producability Engineer, looking into production improvements.

She says, ‘I think apprenticeships are the way forward. When I look at my friends who went to university and are now doing jobs they could have done without a degree, I think if you can get into roles where the company will support you, you mature faster, have more direction and develop techniques to juggle things’.

No horsing around

Burrows certainly knows how to manage different pressures. Waking up at five every morning to tend to her horses, followed by work, studying and then back to the horses for show jumping competitions in the evenings and weekends, it is a wonder she has any time to socialise, let alone sleep. But she manages to pack in activities such as mountain biking and running at the weekends too.

‘I do not think about it, I just do it,’ she says casually. ‘With my new horse, I have to ride and spend time with him every day to bond with him. It’s hard work but rewarding. I’ve been bruised on the ribs, and he jumped on my foot so I ended up in hospital.’

This ability to take on challenges head on and remain unfazed is one of the reasons Burrows believes she landed the job at BAE. Her role at Andrew Bowen, although deviating from the sciences, showcased her can-do attitude and resulted in a number of transferable skills. ‘[The interviewers at BAE] probably thought as I had taken so much on at Andrew Bowen that I could turn my hand to something different,’ says Burrows.

After concluding she could no longer keep ‘playing with people’s fluids all day’ as a laboratory assistant, the job in equestrian surfacing turned up unexpectedly through her contacts in show jumping.

It was a start-up firm, and as the only team member based in the office, Burrows managed the accounts, co-ordinated international transport of materials, and designed brochures, advertisements and the website. ‘I was 18-years-old when I started there,’ she says, ‘Once you get chucked into the deep end, you figure it out for yourself. I was controlling millions of pounds – it was a huge responsibility.

‘I went to the accountant and she explained how the sales and invoices books worked. I did graphic design at school and used that experience to put together the advertisements.

I spent a weekend mapping out the website. I didn’t know what I was doing! I’m not daunted by anything after that.’

That stood her in good stead for the panel interview at BAE. ‘The man who is now my sector leader took me on a factory tour. He said afterwards that I was impressive because I kept asking lots of questions.’

Troubleshooting

Burrows has since worked as a trainee in materials engineering in a team that provides support to the company’s manufacturers. ‘A lot of it is common sense,’ she notes.

One of her first projects was investigating the high frequency of carbon fibre-based composite test piece failures.

As well as observing the manufacturing process, Burrows was keen to understand the operators’ attitudes towards these components and produced a Powerpoint-based training course accordingly. ‘We had to get the message across that the test pieces are important. If they are not approved, the part won’t be,’ she explains. ‘We got them to lay the pieces up correctly and bag them in the cure cycle.’

In the 12 months after the training course, the annual failure rate dropped, with estimated cost savings of over £50,000 per annum. ‘Communicating is key to finding things out,’ insists Burrows. ‘I did not want to come across as a know-it-all, but wanted to involve the operators in the process. We are there to help.’

End of the line?

A sideline that has evolved is an interest in recycling manufacturing waste. ‘I am a bit of a hippy on the quiet,’ she admits, ‘And when I saw waste coming out of the plant, I thought we could make better use of it. There is a big push to reduce costs so we are looking at alternative ways of doing things.’ For example, by making contact with a plastics recycling firm, she is seeking alternative uses for waste polyethylene cutting films, saving about £11,500 per annum in disposal expenditure.

She explains, ‘I keep interesting magazine or journal articles, but I also suggested going to this conference [on Carbon Fibre Recycling and Reuse] as it is good to get knowledge first hand. If you talk to people, you learn more. Everyone is doing something different with their materials.

‘I have now got a couple of meetings with carbon fibre waste recyclers out of it, and I got a good response from BAE. I produced a conference report that outlined our current processes, what other people are doing and what we can do’.

Keeping it in the family

With her father having worked in the back offices at BAE for nearly 20 years, Burrows thought ‘there was no way’ she would ever work for the company. But it seems her curiosity got the better of her. She laughs as she realises she could be considered a local ‘cliché’.

‘In my area, it is the one good place to work. As a kid, I thought it was boring and you had to know lots of physics. But that’s where I am’.

If Burrows is following a family tradition, it has not been a bad choice. As she gears up another notch to apply the skills gained through her HND in project, quality and business management in her new role, she is also considering undertaking an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and her passion for materials is growing.

‘My party trick is to get people to stand on a carbon fibre car I made as part of my course. It weighs close to nothing but has held the weight of many friends!’

Up close

Education – ‘A’ levels in Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics. Higher National Certificate and Diploma in Mechanical Engineering.

Career highlights – Single-handedly running the office for a start-up firm specialising in equestrian surfaces, which turned over millions of pounds in its first six months. Initiating investigation at BAE Systems’ site in Blackburn, UK, into recycling manufacturing waste. Providing support to solve problems that occur during Eurofighter Typhoon and The Lockheed Martin F-35 production. Saving over £50,000 per annum by reducing the failure of test pieces with an improved operator training programme.

Professional affiliations – Younger member of IOM3

Hobbies – Horse riding and show jumping, running, cycling, swimming and ice skating.

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